Will the Natural Wine Movement Listen to an Authentic Authority?
If anyone within the wine writing establishment has concentrated more on the issue of authenticity in wine, the virtues of terroir, and the benefits of naturalness in wine than the Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer, then I don’t know who it is. Back in 1992, reading Kramer’s “Making Sense of California Wine”, I first encountered his earnest search for real naturalness in wine when, writing in the preface he declared:
“For the first time, it is possible, however tentatively, to start to chart ‘somewhere-ness’ in California wine—a familiar similarity derived from place….This book is an attempt to find somewhere-ness of California wine.”
Kramer would go on to note that this revelation of a “somewhere-ness” emerging in the California wine industry was a result of a “new primitivism” that had been forced on Californians by economic and cultural circumstances. It was early evidence that Kramer was on a quest to find and champion authenticity in wine. He hasn’t stopped.
So, I was eager to read his most recent column in The Wine Spectator in which he addresses “Natural Wine”, an extension of, but not the same thing as, his own search for authenticity. Let me get to the money quotes:
“I share a distaste with those who bristle at the self-glorifying ‘natural’ designation. The sanctimony of the natural wine movement’s most ardent supporters suffocates their cause…The very word ‘natural’ has become a flashpoint. Many winemakers who would otherwise be sympathetic chafe at being held—at a kind of intellectual gunpoint—to rigidly prescribed practices…Words matter. And ‘natural’ is not the word you should seek. It’s become a polemic, even a straitjacket. Rather, what you want is a philosophy or a belief that’s rigorous but reasonable.”
“Rigorous, but reasonable.” That’s always been my experience with Matt Kramer and his opinions. And I can’t help but align myself with his thoughts on “natural wine” in this column. The product of this movement, celebrated by some and dismissed by others, really doesn’t offend or excite me more than other wines of a genre. I’ve had good and bad “natural wines” just has I’ve had very good and very bad wines made in industrial facilities. Rather, I’m offended by the intellectual and practical consequences of laying a misappropriated and cynical vocabulary on top of a simple philosophy that otherwise would seem commendable to me. It’s all quite childish.
What’s interesting is that when you hear the ardent champions of today’s “natural” wine movement speak of those who inspired them or seemingly started a movement, few single out Matt Kramer. But they should. That they don’t hold Kramer in high regard as an inspiration for authenticity suggests these naturalists are equally uninformed about the early champions of “natural” wine as they seem to be about the numerous and early authenticity-minded winemakers whom they never mention and probably don’t know.
There is a good argument to be made that wines of real meaning, the kinds of wines that are reflections of something substantial, are those wines that portray the place, the culture and, to use Kramer’s term, the “somewhere-ness” of their origin. Matt Kramer has made this case for many years. One would think that the champions of “natural” wine would eagerly embrace his thoughts on “natural” wine, if only for proper and authentic guidance on how to pursue wines of meaning. If they don’t, it’s quite possible they will lose their way entirely and become a self-glorifying asterisk in the history of the pursuit to find and produce and celebrate real and authentic wine.